Elephants too believe in kinship
Elephants also pay homage to the bones of dead relatives in their home ranges, according to a new study.
Humans apart, only a few animals show any interest in their own dead. Chimpanzees show prolonged and complex behaviours towards a dead social partner - but abandon them once the carcass starts decomposing. But lions, for example, might sniff or lick a dead member of its own species before proceeding to devour the body.
African elephants have been observed to become highly agitated when they come across the bodies of their own, and they have been seen to pay great attention to the skull and ivory of long-dead elephants. However, this interest had not been tested experimentally.
Now research from a team in the UK and Kenya has demonstrated that African elephants pay a higher level of interest to elephant skulls compared with those of other animals and ivory compared to wood.
However, the team could not corroborate stories that elephants specifically visit the bones of dead relatives. The elephant families in their study were unable to pick out the skull of their dead matriarch from other families' dead matriarchs.
"But their interest in the ivory and skulls of their own species means that they would be highly likely to visit the bones of relatives who die within their home range," writes the team, lead by Karen McComb at the University of Sussex, UK.
"Elephants are highly intelligent and highly tactile animals," says David Field, head of animal care for London and Whipsnade Zoos in the UK. "The fact they are able to distinguish between their own skulls and those of other species is not surprising."
"Elephants themselves are a matriarchal society filled with aunties and family members who have close bonds within a group," he adds. A death in the family might be a significant social event. "It could have an impact on social bonding and structure within the group," he told New Scientist.
The notion of elephant graveyards - where old elephants wander off to die - has been exposed as myth by previous studies, the researchers note. Nonetheless, they believe their experiments "cast light" on why elephants are often seen interacting with the skulls and ivory of dead companions.
But there is no way to tell whether the elephants are mourning their dead although they get very excited when approaching carcasses, with secretions streaming from their temples.